Many of the Wellingtonians who have played for the Phoenix talk fondly of the opportunity the club has given them to play professional football in their home town.
Tim Brown, Vaughan Coveny and Kosta Barbarouses all did so from season one of the club-s existence and while Leo Bertos played against the Phoenix before he played for them, the attraction of home was too strong to resist. As he sits on the cusp of becoming the club-s latest centurion, his longevity is testament to a talented and loyal Wellington boy who has contributed hugely to the success and culture of Wellington Phoenix FC and New Zealand football in general.
Bertos was born in Wellington just before Christmas in 1981. He was educated at Wellington College in the second half of the nineties, a school with some illustrious sporting alumni, including Onny Parun, Marc Ellis, James Franklin, George Bridgewater and Bertos-s long-time All Whites team-mates Simon Elliott and Tim Brown. But the school was famous for its rugby players too; at a joint Phoenix/Hurricanes promotion in 2010, it was revealed that former All Blacks front-rower Neemia Tialata would often steal Bertos-s lunch money.
From the age of sixteen he played for Wellington Olympic but as the new Millennium ticked over, the still teenaged Bertos headed to the Northern Hemisphere to further his football education. He spent six years in England, playing for variety of lower league clubs, most notably Rochdale United for who he played 82 times, scoring thirteen goals, including the one which ensured their survival in the Football League in 2003/04. In 2006, he relocated to Australasia and played 35 A-League games over two seasons with Perth where he was a popular member of the side with Glory fans.
When the Phoenix were formed in 2007, it seemed almost inevitable Bertos would soon return to his home town and ahead of the 2008/09 season, he put pen to paper and signed a two-year deal with the A-League-s newest club. He debuted in the first match of the 2008/09 season – inheriting the number seven shirt from inaugural skipper Ross Aloisi – and has basically been a first-choice in the starting eleven ever since.
Bertos-s impact was immediate. Home fans loved his willingness to take on opposition defenders with ball at feet, his mazy dribbling and precise set piece delivery. He-s provided the final pass for numerous goals in his time with the club; in fact, no one has chalked up more assists for the Wellington Phoenix than he has. At the end of his maiden season in Wellington, Bertos was named the club-s Player of the Season.
An oddity of 2007/08 and 2008/09 was that Bertos played in six matches between the Phoenix and Perth – three for each club – and was never on the winning side. I pointed that out to him on the eve of the round two clash between the two in August 2009. “That-s gonna change”, he replied with a wry smile.
And change it did. With five minutes left and the scores locked at 1-1, Bertos-s charge forward was halted by Adriano Pellegrino around 35 yards out. Most observers considered it to be a “sensible” foul, stopping the flying winger before he got too close to goal. But Bertos picked himself up, addressed the resulting free-kick, took a ten-yard run-up and absolutely put his foot through it. A deflection off Jacob Burns was key, but the ball flew into the net, giving Perth ‘keeper Tando Velaphi absolutely no chance. After a split-second to take in what had just happened, the crowd went collectively bonkers as Bertos was engulfed by his team-mates.
That goal kick-started a very special twelve months for Bertos. He featured in every A-League game of the 2009/10 season, playing a huge part in the Phoenix-s run to the Preliminary Final. But his most memorable footballing contribution that year (and perhaps of his entire career) came on the 14th of November 2009 when the All Whites faced Bahrain in Wellington for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
As the first half drew to a close, a charging run by Ben Sigmund won the All Whites a right-wing corner. Bertos had been on set-pieces all night and as the big men gathered in the penalty area, he sized up the situation before producing a perfect delivery onto the head of Rory Fallon. We all know what happened next.
But Bertos-s performance in the away leg in Manama a month earlier was almost as important. Forced into an unfamiliar wing-back role in Ricki Herbert-s new 3-4-3 formation, Bertos put in a superb defensive shift to deny Bahrain-s left-sided attackers any opportunities to penetrate down that flank. New Zealand-s eventual World Cup qualification owed much to the defensive qualities shown by Bertos across the 180 minutes of the tie, during which the All Whites did not concede a goal. In South Africa, he played the same role in all three matches and did so with distinction against experienced, attack-minded opposition.
Not surprisingly, Herbert has made Bertos a regular for country as well as club. Only Shane Smeltz has started more internationals during Herbert-s reign as All Whites coach. After debuting against Iran in 2003, Bertos-s next All Whites match (probably against China in a couple of weeks) will see him earn his fiftieth full cap, but astonishingly, he has yet to score an international goal.
2012 has seen a significant change in Bertos-s brief in both a Phoenix and New Zealand shirt. The problem position for both sides for some years has been right-back and during the Phoenix-s pre-season campaign, Bertos was the latest to be given a chance to make the spot his own. The early signs are promising. His forays up and down the right have been given a new dimension as he is now able to receive the ball and begin his runs with plenty of unoccupied grass in front of him, rather than the more restricted space he was afforded as a winger in front third. Defensively he-s acquitted himself well, and despite admitting to not yet feeling completely at home at fullback, it would appear Bertos has found a new home, and one he may well see out his career in.
It-s not necessarily important for a footballer to be a decent bloke. However, it certainly makes them a lot easier to like, and Bertos is one of the nicest men, let alone footballers, I have ever met. He is unfailingly generous with his time, stopping to sign autographs (always just his first name with the #7 alongside), posing for photos with kids and chatting to older fans. He appears completely unaffected by the very public spotlight football has thrust him into. Quite simply, no-one has a bad word to say about him. Even my eight year-old daughter is smitten, and blushes whenever she sees him on TV.
And so, as Bertos prepares to bring up his century of appearances in the yellow and black, his is a legacy of exciting wing play, sportsmanship (he-s apparently been booked ten times, but it-s hard to remember any of them) and always putting what is right for the team at the forefront of his mind. He is unselfishness personified and for that reason fits perfectly into a team culture where week after week, the players mesh themselves into a whole which is far greater than the sum of their parts. But for one game at least, Leo Bertos deserves to bask in just a little more of the spotlight than his team-mates as he brings up this very significant milestone.
2008/09: 16 appearances (14 starts), 2 goals
2009/10: 30 appearances (25 starts), 2 goals
2010/11: 22 appearances (18 starts), 3 goals
2011/12: 28 appearances (25 starts), 1 goal
2012/13: 3 appearances (3 starts), 0 goals
TOTAL: 99 appearances (85 starts), 8 goals